Norwegian Scientists Plan To Freeze Themselves In Polar Ice

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A hundred and twenty years ago, Norwegian scientist Fridtjof Nansen started a journey that made him one of the greatest explorers of all time. He set out to purposely get his ship frozen in the polar ice.

The reason? To study polar currents. His ship, the Fram, was purpose-built for the task. It needed to be; many crews had perished in the far north when their ships got frozen and then crushed by ice. The Fram spent three years stuck in the ice as the crew studied currents, took soundings and gathered a host of other scientific data that researchers are still sifting through. Not content with this adventure, Nansen set off on skis in a failed bid to be the first to the North Pole.

Nansen (1861-1930) was fascinated with the world of the Arctic. He was the first to ski across Greenland in 1888 and wrote about his adventures in The First Crossing of Greenland. This was the first of many exciting travel books he’d write. His most famous is Farthest North, his account of the Fram expedition. Nansen went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his work helping refugees after World War I, including the many victims of the Armenian Genocide. His ship is preserved at The Fram Museum in Oslo.

Now researchers at the Norwegian Polar Institute want to get their own ship frozen in the ice. They’re hoping to take an old Arctic research vessel that’s slated for the scrapyard and get it stuck in the ice during the winter of 2014-15.

They plan on studying the conditions of the ice, conditions that have changed markedly in the past few years. With the warming of the poles, most ice is only a year old, instead of being several years old like the ice that Nansen studied. This young ice is thinner, more saline, and has different reflective properties than older ice. Such a study may yield important data on how the Arctic is changing due to global warming.

You can read more about Nansen and the proposed project in an excellent two-part series on Science Nordic.

An Interview With Paul Theroux, Author Of ‘The Last Train To Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari’

paul theroux last train to zona verdeAfter writing eight travel books that took him around Britain on foot, through the Pacific on a kayak, across Latin America, Europe and Asia on trains and up and down Africa by his wits over the last 30 years, one might think that Paul Theroux would be hard pressed to find new insights into the traveling lifestyle. But in his new travel narrative, “The Last Train to Zona Verde,” the 71-year-old Medford, Massachusetts, native manages to once again break new ground with yet another insightful, page-turning account of a trip that’s equal parts misery, hilarity and tragedy.

While other established writers might be content to spend their golden years waxing poetic on the joys of cruising the canals of Southern France or writing puff pieces on cruises or luxury resorts for P.R. flacks, Theroux returns to Africa – the setting for some of his most memorable books – for one final adventure in little known corners of South Africa, Namibia and Angola.

Theroux intended to travel overland up “the left hand side” of Africa, starting in Cape Town and heading north, as a sort of bookend to his trip up the “right hand side” of Africa chronicled in “Dark Star Safari,” but after a series of tribulations including having his identity stolen, Theroux abandoned his plans in Angola, where, for the first time in his life, he found a train, heading into the country’s zona verde, that he didn’t want to board.Theroux has often remarked that the best travel narratives chronicle bad trips and by that metric, “Last Train to Zona Verde” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – out Tuesday, May 7) is a delight. In a recent special report on Africa, The Economist concluded that Africa has never been in better shape. But apparently their correspondents didn’t spend much time in the impoverished backwaters of South Africa, Namibia and Angola, as Theroux did. Zona Verde is a bleak, but honest appraisal of a continent “plagued with foreign advisors” where corruption, bad governance, poverty and disease are the norm.

But Zona Verde isn’t all doom and gloom. It’s also filled with amusing anecdotes, Theroux’s trademark storytelling, and some of the most prescient insights about both the pleasures and hassles of travel I have ever read. It is clearly one of his best works; a compulsive read that deserves to be recognized as one of the classics of the genre.

the last train to zona verde my ultimate african safari paul therouxZona Verde is replete with vivid descriptions of corners of Africa that rarely make the news, but it really shines thanks to the author’s disarming admission of vulnerability. Theroux admits that he’s getting old and shares his fear of dying in an out of the way slum, only to have people who barely know him conclude, “He died doing what he loved.”

“It’s only when in a hovel in the bush, or being stared down by a hostile stinking crowd (Meester! Meester!), or eating a sinister stew of black meat or a cracked plate of cold, underdone, greasy, and eye-speckled potatoes, or banging in a jalopy for nine hours down a mountain road full of potholes – with violent death as close as that dark precipice to the right – that it occurs to me that someone else should be doing this, someone younger perhaps, hungrier, stronger, more desperate, crazier.”

We reached Theroux at his home on the North Shore of Oahu where he told us about how he lost four friends in Africa, encountered an untold number of busybodies and crooks, and had his identity stolen but somehow remains an Africa optimist. Theroux also assures us that he hasn’t lost the “vitalizing itch” to travel but warns that “some kid who is in his parent’s basement with a blog” should be the one stuck on “9 hour buses to nowhere” rather than him.

Travel writers usually complete their proposed trips, even if they are dangerous or make no sense, because they think they have to in order to sell their stories. In Zona Verde, you reached your Waterloo after a lot of trials and tribulations and said, ‘I’m not getting on this train.’ I didn’t think you owed readers an explanation for wanting to go home, but you gave them one.

My travel books have always been faithful accounts of what happened to me, things that happened, conversations that I had and feelings that I had. I didn’t feel an obligation to do anything but explain why I wasn’t going further. I had the idea of going north from Angola into the Congo, and then Cameroon, Gabon, Nigeria and Mali but it’s just not possible to do that and write anything other than an anatomy of melancholy. I didn’t really want to be completely downbeat.

A younger traveler or someone who is interested in the sociology of cities would probably do it better than I could. As far as I was concerned, my patience was done and my trip was over. I was sort of happy too because I wasn’t thinking ‘Oh God, if only I could do it.’ I was thinking, ‘I’m relieved of this. I won’t discover anything. I won’t learn anything.’ If you know you’re not going to learn anything, it’s like having a bad meal. You take a few bites, and you say, ‘well that’s that.’

Did I feel an obligation to go on? No, I didn’t. I’ve never traveled with a sense of obligation. I’ve always traveled with a sense of purpose and, I suppose, adventure. But if I don’t think in my heart there are going to be any discoveries, there is really no point in going.

At a few junctures in the book, you address a fear of dying in some backwater and having people say, “He died doing what he loved.” You also wrote that when you left Cape Town you feared that you were “setting off to suffer and die.” I don’t recall you addressing this fear of mortality in your previous books. Am I wrong?

Maybe not, but I was younger then! There are three deaths in this book and I subsequently learned that a woman I met in a township called Khayelitsha who runs a bed-and-breakfast called Vicki’s Place was killed. About eight months after I met her she was stabbed to death by her husband. She was stabbed multiple times. It was witnessed by her children.

Have you ever had this happen before, where you go on a trip and then come back to discover that someone you met died?

No. Not that I can recall. It does happen. In Africa, there was a student I had that died, but no, this is unusual and it concentrates your mind. It’s not Africa necessarily. But there were people I got to know and I really liked them. These people loved being in Africa. There was an Australian, Nathan Jamieson, who loved being there with the elephants. A Portuguese guy, Rui da Camara, who was born there and Kalunga Lima who was full of energy and I was planning to go back and travel with him. So it was a shock. It makes you value what you have and question, ‘Am I doing what I love or am I willing to take the risk of going further?’

Sir Richard Burton said, ‘What am I doing in a canoe going up a river perhaps never to come back?’ He said, ‘Why do it? The devil drives.’ There is no explanation for it. When he wrote that he was 42 years old. I mentioned in the book, I was once 42 and willing to take any risk. I had just written “The Mosquito Coast” at that age. I was game for anything. I was in South America. I was in Africa. And I was doing fairly risky things. Not to the Richard Burton level but when you’re 42, you can make it. Even more when you’re 32.

I just turned 40 and I’m probably more risk averse now than I was when I was 30 because now I have a wife and two kids.

When you have small children and responsibilities you feel like, ‘I owe it to them to keep them happy and to keep myself alive.’ I was more willing to take risks then. Burton didn’t get to my age. He died at 69, I think, in Trieste. When he was in his 60s he was in Trieste doing consular business and he was writing and translating erotica. He had a big library and a great life in his 60s but a very sedentary and scholarly one. There must be travelers my age who take risks but I don’t know any of them.

Dervla Murphy! She’s 81 and is about to release a book about her travels in the Gaza Strip.

Oh yes. She’s older than me. She’s very game. She’s a candidate.

paul theroux books

You wrote that when you’re staying in a really pleasant place, it’s easy to imagine you can keep traveling no matter how old you are. But it seems as though you still have that “vitalizing itch” to take these really difficult overland trips through developing countries?

I do, yes. I think I do. If there is something to find out, I’m up for it. But if there is nothing to learn, no. If you’re talking about physically being up to it, yes, I am. And even being psyched up for it. But the longer you live, if you have any sense at all, and you are somewhat forward looking, you create a home for yourself. You have a painting you like. You have a library with good books. A chair you really like. A lovely bed. Maybe you are married and you love your wife. You have all the things that create happiness.

When I was younger, I was more nomadic. What is the ideal place to live? What’s a picture that I really like? What are the books in my library that I want to keep or donate to the library? You make a plan. And I think you have more of a home in your later life than you do in your early life. That’s a great reason for staying home. Being happy. Having a place to live.

I’m speaking to you from Hawaii. I grow bamboo. I have geese running around. I have beehives. I live on seven acres. I’m about five minutes from a beach. I’m up on a hill and I can go down to the beach. Sometimes people will say, ‘Come to our writers’ conference, it’s lovely,’ and they name a place like Key West. Well, I’m in Hawaii, so I’ll say, ‘Tempt me, but you’re going to have to do better than we have a wonderful beach.’ I’m in Hawaii!

I imagine that might explain why you’ve never been to Niagara Falls, my hometown. I read in the Times that that is one of many places you’d like to visit sometime.

I do want to go to Niagara Falls. I mentioned several places I haven’t been to but would like to visit. Montana, Niagara Falls, Idaho, a lot of Canada, Scandinavia. There are a lot of places I haven’t been to.

You could live to be 300 and not see it all.

You can’t. The world is so big. And it’s also staying longer in a place and going deeper. But since I wrote that piece, I’ve traveled in the American South for a piece I’m writing for Smithsonian magazine. The rural south is a place well worth visiting. Full of surprises and strangeness, so I’m up for that.

Coming back to Zona Verde, you wrote that you always considered yourself a fortunate traveler but on this trip you had your identity stolen and someone made $48,000 worth of purchases on your credit card. You wrote in the book that you believe someone at the Protea Hotel Ondangwa in Namibia may be the culprit. Did you make a formal complaint against them with the police?

That was pretty dismal. I made a complaint. I called the American Embassy and they put me in touch with the police. I gave them the names of all the places my credit card had been used. In some places, it was used to buy $4,000 worth of furniture. Getting windows tinted. Some of the charges were just getting a $2 ham sandwich at a gas station but others were very big expenses like computers.

It was $48,000. I think if someone bought $4,000 worth of furniture from you, you’d remember them, wouldn’t you? And also, the furniture has to be delivered somewhere doesn’t it? I got a couple emails from the police and then nothing happened. I think someone made a copy of the card at the hotel where I stayed but I don’t have proof of that. I just feel it.

Did the credit card company hold you liable to pay the entire bill?

It took months to sort it out but no, I didn’t have to pay. The card had been used without any I.D.

My credit card company frequently denies charges I make overseas if I forget to call and alert them that I’m going to be out of the country. I’m amazed that someone could make nearly $50,000 worth of purchases before the fraud department at your credit card company got wind of what was going on.

Exactly. Why would I buy $4,000 worth of furniture in Namibia? The fraud department said this happens all the time but very rarely that large an amount.

paul theroux books

I loved the “Three Pieces of Chicken” chapter in Zona Verde where you were so hungry that you found yourself trying to decide which piece of fly bitten chicken in a dirty bucket was fit to eat. That’s the kind of decision every serious traveler faces at some point, right?

That’s one of my favorite chapters in the book. It’s an object lesson in travel. You see a meal, it looks disgusting, but you think, ‘I’m hungry and there’s nothing else to eat.’ So you eat it and there’s only two pieces of chicken left but the same number of flies. And then, you eat the second one and there are a lot of flies and only one piece of chicken left. Things happened in that chapter. I lucked out. There were girls getting their efundula, this rite of passage ceremony. That’s traveler’s bliss. You arrive in a place, you don’t know what’s happening, and then you discover that something interesting is going on.

You wrote, “Most people come to Africa to see large or outlandish animals in the wild while some others make the visit to Africa to tell Africans how to improve their lives. And many people do both, animal watching in the morning, busybodying in the afternoon.” You also wrote that Africa was a “continent plagued by foreign advisors.” Can you elaborate on some of these “busybodies” you met?

What I was suggesting is that people go to a country, they see a situation and say, ‘This is a nice place. I like the weather. I like the food. I think I’m going to help these people.’ Someone from say, Alabama, goes to Zambia and says, ‘Gee, these people are having a tough time,’ not noticing that Alabama has many of the same problems that Zambia has. A high infant mortality rate, AIDS, hunger, poor housing. But busybodying in your own country isn’t romantic enough.

There was a piece in the New York Times about how the Gates Foundation and a lot of health agencies have completely undermined the health system in Sierra Leone by corrupting officials there. That’s a form of busybodying I suppose. They think they’re solving a health crisis but all they’re doing is creating a mess in the government. You were in the Foreign Service so none of this is news to you. Where were you?

Macedonia, Trinidad and Hungary. And I was once the desk officer for Chad and the Central African Republic.

Trinidad is pretty interesting, isn’t it?

It is but there are good reasons why V.S. Naipaul wanted to get out. It’s one of those places that is better to visit than to live in. Port of Spain is not the Caribbean paradise people dream about.

I haven’t seen much of the Caribbean, but I know Naipaul hated Trinidad. You know I wrote a book about him.

Sir Vidia’s Shadow. Great book.

Thanks! I’ve never been there and I used to tell him I wanted to go and he’d say, ‘Why would you want to go there? It’s a dot on the map, it’s corrupt, it’s horrible.’ He also felt that Indians were discriminated against there by Afro-Trinidadians.

In Zona Verde, you spent some time with a USAID Foreign Service Officer and you questioned why American taxpayers should help promote tourism in Namibia, rather than say, Maine. That kind of critique can get you in trouble though, can’t it?

Yes, but I was friendly with this guy, Oliver Pierson. I’ve heard from him since. I wrote a piece in Playboy about aid to Africa and he saw it and thought it was fair. You make some enemies but I thought I accurately reported what he was doing. The Millennium Challenge Corporation is actually well run and well monitored. It’s much better than USAID building some endless project.

I’ve been traveling in the South. South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi but I got really interested in it. A lot of projects in this region are run on a shoestring. If they had more money, they could make a huge difference in the rural South, but that’s the way it is. Tanzania and Ghana are places that get hundreds of millions in aid. 600 or 700 million dollars. That’s a lot of money for countries that are basically not badly off. Ghana isn’t badly off.

But for some reason, the romance of building a school in Africa is greater than the obligation we have to build a school in rural Alabama. And there are some very bad schools there. There are parts of South Carolina that look like Zimbabwe. Allendale, which is a town south of Columbia, where I spent some time recently, is one. There’s no employment. Everything is closed. Local industry has been outsourced.

I don’t like to be the person who is negative about aid. I’m not for cutting off aid. In a humanitarian crisis, I’m all for giving aid, but accounting for the money is very important as well. For example, that piece (in the Times) on Sierra Leone is a perfect example. You have some very smart people who have gone there and been completely bamboozled by the government in Sierra Leone.

Most of the book is a pretty bleak assessment of the poverty and corruption you experienced in Africa, but near the end of the book you wrote that you are still optimistic about the continent’s future. I was a little puzzled by that because it seemed like you encountered very little on this trip that would make one hopeful about Africa’s future.

That’s a fair question. I think I’m hopeful because it’s unfinished. So much of what is there, buildings, governments, infrastructure is so fragile and could just fall down. When a place is almost built on sand, my hope would lie in people’s indignation or in their being rebels against governments that are cheating them. Aid prevents them, to some extent, from showing this indignation. The government is throwing them crumbs and other countries are running their education and health services or what have you. But if they knew how deeply they were being cheated, and they do on some level, then you overthrow the government.

Things are thrown together with duct tape and no one is there for the long term, at least in terms of helping. It’s a house of cards and it can be rebuilt. But it’s also still a huge, green, empty continent. The majority of Africans live in cities. The bush is depopulated so that’s still full of possibility.

A few months ago I interviewed a legendary German traveler named Gunther Holtorf, who has been to some 200 countries and one of his favorite places is what he called “Virgin Africa.” The bush – not the cities.

I can relate to that. And there’s still a lot of it too. There may be more of it now than before, because people are leaving villages for the cities. The Eastern Cape in South Africa has nothing. There is no industry. They’re not growing food as they once were. People are streaming out of the Eastern Cape and going to the cities. The middle of Angola is pretty empty, but Luanda is full of people. The cities are full of people who are thinking, ‘Well, something will happen to me here.’ On some level, people feel safer in cities and insecure in the bush.

As a reader, I’m torn between wanting to see you return to places you’ve already been, like to the places in the Pacific you wrote about in “The Happy Isles of Oceania,” for example, or reading your take on places you’ve never been to. Would you prefer to return to places you found interesting to see how they’ve changed or go somewhere new?

That’s an excellent question, but it’s the same impulse. You know that if you go back to the place you were in before, 10, 15, 20 years later, in the case of the Pacific, I was there in 1990 and 1991, a lot has happened in those islands since I was there. So there would be a lot of discoveries to make. And then in a new place, I know I would also make discoveries. So the reason for travel is not to reassure yourself and enjoy a mai tai at sunset, as nice as that may be.

It’s nice to find out something new. There ought to be an intellectual experience, making a discovery. Both are impulses so the answer is both. If you go to a new place, you’ll see something new. In the Pacific, it’s been a slippery slope, because they’ve had more fast food and more Internet. Going to an island that didn’t have TV and now has Internet, I don’t know how much of a thrill that would be, but there’s something to write about. Whenever something bad happens, you have something to write about. That’s what you want. Not the predictable.

Was this your last trip to Africa?

I will probably go back to Africa but as far as writing a book like this, I doubt it. I would have to be really tempted and be sure I wasn’t wasting my time. I have a lot of friends in Africa but I haven’t been back since I finished this book. I can speak Swahili. I can speak the language I learned in the Peace Corps, Chichewa. The idea of being in a place where you can speak the language, a place you know – I’ve known it for 50 years – is a great temptation. But the idea of getting on another nine-hour bus on a trip to nowhere – no I’m not willing to do it.

Some kid who is in his parent’s basement with a blog, that’s what he or she should do. Go find out what the real world is like. I did it. If I were younger or if I liked cities more or understood them better, I might be up for it. You read the piece in The New York Times about where I want go. Those places – that’s where I’d rather go. Niagara Falls. I’d like to do that.

You wrote in the book, “Reading and restlessness – dissatisfaction at home, a sourness at being indoors, and a notion that the real world was elsewhere – made me a traveler. If the Internet was everything it was cracked up to be, we would all stay home and be brilliantly witty and insightful. Yet with so much contradictory information available, there is more reason to travel than ever before: to look closer, to dig deeper, to sort the authentic from the fake, to verify, to smell, to touch, to hear and sometimes – importantly – to suffer the effects of this curiosity.” We’re always signing the praises of travel, but having that restless itch can also ruin people’s lives can’t it?

Yes it can. And impatient people who are used to the Internet will find that travel is slow and full of nuisance and delay – that there’s no instant gratification. Or that there’s only one bus or train a week and you might get stuck. They haven’t got the patience for it but that’s what travel teaches you. Temperamentally, people are less suited to travel than ever because the Internet is so quick in offering answers, but they’re not always the right answers. So there is more reason than ever to travel but there are fewer people willing to put up with the nuisance of it these days.

[Photo credits: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Peter Cleghorn, Jeremy Holden,Justin Ornellas, JMerelo,JMazzolaa, Aftab, Rui Ornelas, and Zokete on Flickr]

Travel Reads: ‘Eighty Days’ By Matthew Goodman

It is easy, without historical context, to mistake our own travels – and the documentation thereof – as some kind of bold act. We think ourselves grand for going around the world and we think our stories worthy of sharing merely because we can. But 150 years ago, this was just not the case. Travel was a big deal, women traveling an even bigger deal and women traveling solo, if not quite unheard of, certainly a long way from standard practice.

It was the Victorian age. Men – mostly men – traveled by steamship and rail. As for documenting said travels, that was the territory of men as well. Women were as unwelcome in the newsroom as they were in the pages those newsrooms produced, relegated to fashion and housekeeping and maybe the arts.

In to this landscape two bold women took it upon themselves to race one another around the world. One, an elegant and cultured arts writer – Elizabeth Bisland – the other, a scrappy go getter news hound in a checkered jacket – Nellie Bly.

Eighty Days” is the story of their adventure not just to succeed as great travelers, but to become well known and respected journalists as well. Off they go, propelled by their own will, two very different women on mirrored journeys. Nellie Bly invented the trip; Elizabeth Bisland was convinced to participate. Ms. Bisland packed for propriety and style, Ms. Bly anticipated the carry-on only traveler by over a century by insisting on taking nothing more than she could manage herself, lest she be delayed while waiting for her luggage.

They were both determined, bold, articulate and so brave. Looking back through history only magnifies the unusual nature of their travels.

The book is a terrific read, full of compelling characters – newspaper men, suitors, handsome sailors, exotic foreigners, missed communication, hunger and frustration – in short, all the stuff that makes up a good travel story. And it’s impossible not to admire these exceptional women, racing against time and against the standards of the day. Matthew Goodmans brings a heroic Nellie Bly to life in the first pages and Elizabeth Bisland’s grace and unexpected nerve are made real next. It’s impossible to decide whom you want to win. And finally, when one of the women does win, it doesn’t matter – the adventure has been completely worth it.

Travel Hacking: Best Holiday Gifts For Low-Tech Travelers

I’m an unapologetic Luddite. My colleagues at Gadling will attest to this. The fact that I write for AOL is both cosmic luck and hilarious irony given my initial reluctance to embrace the digital era.

I can’t help it; it’s hereditary. At least, that’s what I tell myself, whenever I watch my dad pecking away on my grandparent’s 1930s Smith-Corona (not a lie), or fumbling with the remote.

It’s unsurprising that when I travel, I try to keep things as low-tech as possible. It’s a matter of both practicality and part of my old school aesthetic that leads me to eschew costly devices and other gadgets. I’m also incapable of figuring out how to use them, so I look at it as less items to get stolen or malfunction.

I know I’m not alone, so I’ve compiled a list of holiday gifts for the die-hard travelers on your list who refuse to change their old-timey ways. Just remember, one of these days, us minimalists are going to be cutting-edge for being retro.

Gift card to an actual bookstore (preferably independently-owned), or travel store.
Yeah, books are heavier to lug than a Kindle or a Nook, but as a writer, I value the written word. So do a lot of people, and one of the joys of traveling for us is exchanging books with fellow vagabonds or trading in at a guesthouse or hostel.

Prepaid international phone card
Cheap, abundant, and a hell of a lot less of a hassle than dealing with Verizon overseas (in my experience). A prepaid international card is easy to purchase, although do note it’s usually less expensive for travelers to purchase cards at their destination. It’s the thought that counts.

Netbook or airbook
I may be tech-challenged, but I’m not crazy. I can’t earn a living if I don’t travel with a computer. My inexpensive little Acer has seen me through a lot of countries and fits neatly into my daypack, along with its accessories. Don’t forget a wireless mouse to go with it.
Waterproof journal
Many travelers keep journals, and some of us who travel occupationally still carry notebooks (I don’t even own a tape recorder). It’s a huge bummer, however, when the inevitable rain, beer, wine, or coffee renders covers soggy or writing illegible. An all-weather notebook is the solution.

Ibex undergarments
I used to work in a mountaineering/ski shop in Telluride, and I swear by Ibex. Their 100% merino wool, American-made boy shorts, long johns/long “janes,” cami’s, sports bras, and adorable, long-sleeve, stripey tops are the ultimate underlayers for cold weather adventures. I road-tested some items on a month-long backpacking trip through Ecuador, from the Amazon Basin to one of the highest active volcanoes on earth. I was able to do laundry exactly twice. Ibex: 1, Stench: 0. Men’s and women’s items available; they also make outerwear.

Travel scarf/shawl/blanket
Many women get cold on airplanes and long, AC-blasted bus rides. Since I backpack, I’ve found several different drapey items in my travels that pull triple duty. Depending upon what part of the world I’m in, I’ll use a soft, alpaca shawl to dress up outfits, as a lap blanket, or an impromptu pillow. In the Andes, I sub a llama wool poncho. In the tropics, it’s a pretty, airy sarong. When I get home, I have a wonderful souvenir.

If you’re buying for someone departing on a trip, any department store will have a wide assortment and price range of pashminas or scarves. Just be sure it’s a dark color, to hide dirt and stains, and that it’s made of soft, preferably natural-fibers, so it won’t absorb odors as readily. The item should be able to withstand sink-washing.

Multi-purpose beauty products
Regardless of gender, everyone loves multi-purpose travel products: more room for souvenirs! I like Josie Maran Argan Oil, which can be used as a lightweight, yet rich, face or body moisturizer, or to condition hair (use just a few drops for soft, gleaming strands). Rosebud salve comes in cute, vintagey tins, smells lovely, and soothes everything from dry lips and cracked heels to flyaways. Many top make-up brands produce multi-use products: I crave Korres Cheek Butter, which is also gorgeous on lips (all available at Sephora).

Lush makes luxe bar soaps that work on body and hair, but perhaps the kindest gift for the female adventure traveler? Inexpensive fragrance that does double duty as perfume and clothes/room freshener. I never leave home without Demeter’s Gin & Tonic Cologne Spray.

[Photo Credit: jurvetson]

The 25 Best Contemporary Travel Books


The only thing that can get me through periods of inertia when I can’t travel is a good book. Twenty years ago, I picked up a copy of Paul Theroux’s “The Great Railway Bazaar” and have been a restless wanderer ever since. Over the years, great books have inspired me to travel but have also filled in my gaps in knowledge about places I’m probably not brave enough to visit, like Congo or Afghanistan.

For $20 or less, I can sit back and enjoy reading about someone else’s discomfort, and hopefully learn a thing or two in the process. What follows is a highly subjective list of my 25 favorite contemporary travel narratives. Feel free to pick a fight with me in the comments section.Paul Theroux

The Great Railway Bazaar- This classic ’70s account of Theroux’s epic train journey across Europe and Asia was Theroux’s first travel narrative and it’s still one of his best works. But he paid a price: when he returned home from the trip, his wife had taken up with another man.

The Old Patagonian Express- In this vividly reported, often humorous book, Theroux rides the rails from Boston to Patagonia, save for a flight across the Darien Gap. Last year, Rachel Pook, a Theroux fan, blogged about her in the journey retracing Theroux’s trip.

The Happy Isles of Oceania- In the wake of a divorce and a health scare, Theroux traveled via collapsible kayak to 51 islands in the South Pacific. As always, Theroux tells the story of his own voyage intermingled with tidbits on the local culture and vignettes about notable South Pacific expats, like Paul Gauguin.

Dark Star Safari- Most 60-something travel writers are looking for gigs in Provence and Tuscany, but Theroux traveled overland from Cairo to Cape Town for this modern classic.

Jeffrey Tayler

Siberian Dawn- This is a beautifully written, addictive adventure story about a daring road trip across Siberia.

Facing the Congo- What sane person takes a wooden pirogue and a series of barges up the Congo River? Tayler does and lives to tell about it. To his credit, Tayler took this trip and the Siberian Dawn adventure out of desperation, with no book deal in hand.

Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire Between Moscow and Beijing- In this perceptive, funny book, Tayler travels through obscure corners of Russia and China, shedding light on places few Western writers bother to visit.

Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat, and Camel- Tayler’s adventures in the Sahel provide insights into an overlooked but fascinating part of the world.

Others

Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, Round Ireland with a Fridge, and One Hit Wonderland- Tony Hawks- All three of these books describe journeys taken to fulfill gimmicky bets: could Hawks track down and beat all the Moldovan national soccer players at tennis, could he hitchhike around Ireland with a small fridge, and could he write a song that charts somewhere in the world. They’re all completely contrived, but great fun nonetheless.

Lost Continent- Bill Bryson- Bill Bryson’s search for the perfect small American town. His first travel book is still probably his best and certainly his funniest.

Four Corners- Kira Salak- A page-turner about a bold trip in the footsteps of British explorer Ivan Champion through Papau New Guinea. An impressive journey for anyone to undertake, but particularly gutsy for a single female traveler.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals- J. Maarten Troost- Troost tags along with his wife who got a job on a remote Pacific atoll and the result is perhaps the funniest travel book ever written.

A Way to See the World- Tom Swick- A terrific collection of travel stories from Tom Swick, a great writer who can capture the essence of a place in a few pages while making just about any place seem interesting.

The Village of Waiting- George Packer- If you want to get a feel for what it’s like to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in a remote African village, look no further than this great read.

River Town- Peter Hessler- Hessler’s outstanding, often hilarious account of life as a volunteer (Peace Corps) English teacher in a provincial Chinese city reveals a lot about China and Chinese culture.

Hokkaido Highway Blues- Will Ferguson- Ferguson has a great sense of humor and this account of his hitchhiking adventure across the length of Japan along the trail of the blooming Cherry Blossoms is one of my all-time favorite travel books.

Sean and David’s Long Drive- Sean Condon- A riotously funny account of a lad’s road trip across Australia.

Stealing from a Deep Place- Brian Hall- This 80’s classic recounts Hall’s bike trip across Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary in the waning days of the Soviet Empire.

The Places In Between- Rory Stewart- A superbly written account of a ballsy walk across Afghanistan written by an adventurer turned diplomat.

The Summer of My Greek Taverna- Tom Stone- Brilliant, funny tale about what happens when an American partners with a local taverna owner in Patmos.

Travels In Siberia- Ian Frazier- You might not want to visit Siberia after reading this book, which is about a series of trips Frazier took spanning over a decade, but you won’t want this book to end.

Turn Right at Machu Picchu- Mark Adams- Adams shows us that there’s more to Machu Picchu than what one can find on the Inca Trail. A great read.

The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto- Pico Iyer- Iyer quit his job with Time magazine in New York and went to live in a monastery in Japan. He only lasted a week, but his observations about Kyoto and Japanese culture are fascinating.

Blood River- Tim Butcher- I read this book and still have no idea how Daily Telegraph reporter Tim Butcher made it out of the Congo alive. This is a must read.